Maggie was only six when she first experienced prejudice. But despite her young age, what Maggie experienced was, and is, commonplace for many First Nations people throughout Australia. While racism might look a little different these days, or in some cases less overt, it’s still there.

Through her story, Maggie talks about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people “are made to stay silent about a lot of things” and that “nobody could tell their stories”. For a long time, many First Nations people have kept tight-lipped about their stories of personal encounters with racism, discrimination, bias and trauma as a way of protecting themselves from reliving past experiences.

Maggie’s story sits within a time during the twentieth century when government policies dictated the lives of First Nations people and fuelled white Australia’s attitudes towards them. While it appeared that the Protection Act and Assimilation Policy aimed to protect the livelihoods of First Nations people, and provide opportunities to absorb the lifestyle of modern white Australia, this was far from the truth. During this time, First Nations people were still deemed to have a social status below white Australians. When we look at how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were classed below non-Indigenous Australians, we merely need to look at barriers First Nations people faced. Nationally, barriers looked like the effects of the Assimilation policy, not being able to vote until 1962, and not being included in the national census until 1967. Plus in some towns, barriers looked like colour-bar lines that restricted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from entering public venues like cinemas, hotels, swimming pools and shops. Or in the case of Sister Maggie, this otherness became clear when she faced barriers competing in a running race at the age of six.

The trauma of this event in Maggie’s life has led to what Gamilaroi man Professor Bob Morgan (2020) describes as spiritual fatigue, which is a consequence of struggling to have or defend human rights and human freedoms. Within this fatigue is trauma, that if not dealt with in an environment that’s safe, then becomes intergenerational trauma. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, spiritual fatigue can be the result of being removed from family, Country and culture (Morgan 2020). It’s also caused by being subjected to racism and discrimination. For Sister Maggie, part of her spiritual fatigue comes from holding on to her trauma. She sums up what many First Nations people feel: “You protect yourself unless you have an area to speak in … then it stays with you until it suddenly finds a way out.” Maggie’s decision to remain silent about her trauma until later in life shows us that she’s not felt safe to talk about her encounter with prejudice.

While the historical context that sits behind Maggie’s story is dark, there’s power in her truth-telling. Maggie’s story reminds us of some very important things about First Nations people and communities. Firstly, despite the ongoing adversity Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face, they’ll always show up in support of their community and kin. Kinship systems aren’t something that ended with colonisation; kinship systems have merely evolved. Secondly, it’s important for all Australians to shift their thinking and understand that being a First Nations person isn’t a barrier. True barriers are the ones borne from the systems and infrastructure that have historically been designed to restrict Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People from accessing them. These institutional barriers include lack of, or no access to, adequate education, healthcare and employment. We see First Nations people face challenges when accessing or navigating these sectors because their access has only been granted and begun to be normalised within the last 50 years.

Maggie’s story also reminds us of a vital part of the truth-telling process: that we have a responsibility to listen to stories of trauma, racism and discrimination experienced by First Nations people, and to respond by reflecting, undoing any conscious or unconscious biases we may have, or calling out racism when we see it. It’s important that all Australians have empathy and understanding of our nation’s past, and provide safe spaces for First Nations people to tell their stories, so we can work together to build a more inclusive future.

Author: Courtney Rubie, Wiradjuri woman in collaboration with Australians Together


Morgan B (7 September 2020) Spiritual Fatigue, Northern Rivers Doctors Network, accessed 18 January 2023.

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